Auto-Biography: The Game of Foxes

[This is a 2008 re-run of a little meditation on the theme of family genetics: Ford Fox and Niedermeyer]

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Of course that was NEVER going to apply to me and my nerdy, car-clueless Father. He drove boxy Detroit stripper sedans. I drove VW’s, Peugeots and Mercedes. He’s a world-renowned Electroencephalographer– but totally impractical. I eschewed the classroom – but rebuilt cars. I grew-up in the time when political pundits pronounced our cultural chasm a “generation gap.” Except ours was more like the Grand Canyon. Or so I thought…

In 1978, the Old Man bought a bare-bones Mercury Zephyr, the corporate kissing cousin to the Ford Fairmount. It “sported” a frugal four cylinder engine mated to a four-speed stick, sitting on Ford’s “ride engineered” suspension package. We made fun of Dad’s nerd-mobile behind his back, with visions of cooler wheels floating in our heads.

In 1983, I bought a Thunderbird Turbo-Coupe. The dramatic new “Aero Bird” boasted the first fully electronic-controlled (EECIV)  turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, a five-speed manual, a “Traction-Lok” limited-slip differential, a sporty leather interior and those big alloys with the odd-sized Michelin TRX  tires.

The next time I visited the folks, I borrowed Dad’s Zephyr for an errand. As soon as I sat down in the driver’s seat and closed the door, genetics’ painful reality crashed in on me.  I was sitting in essentially the same car as my Turbo Coupe.

It was like that OMG moment when you first say something or make a gesture that totally channels one of your parents. The seat, steering wheel, pedals, dash and stick were all exactly in the same place. Even the Zephyr’s feeble 88hp Pinto engine was scarily familiar. Not only was it the same basic engine, but it rather felt and sounded like it too until my T-Bird’s turbo finally spooled up.

You can run, but you can’t hide from a Ford Fox-body, the most versatile, evergreen and successful platform ever conceived in Detroit.

If my Dad had been a cop, he would have been driving a black-and-white (Fox-body) LTD II sedan.

Had he gone into private practice, he might have chucked his frugal habits and bought a Fox-body Lincoln MK VII LSC coupe.

If he’d left my mother in a mid-life crisis, he would have ignored his inevitable mortality in a Foxy red Mustang GT rag-top. Now that one’s the biggest stretch, since he loathes even the tiniest draft.

More improbably, if Dad had given up academia to become a coke dealer in downtown Baltimore, he would have been doing so out of a pimped-out (Fox-body) Continental Givenchy sedan with gold-plated grille and wire wheels.

If he’d been a little less self-conscious than this son, but equally car-crazed, he would have tossed restraint to the winds and bought an SVO, the most technologically advanced, best-handling American car in 1984.

Finally, if Dad had been what I most would have liked him to be, the CEO of Ford, he would have been flinging a carefully prepped Fox-bodied LX 5.0 sedan around the race course at Bob Bondurant’s driving school. Just like CEO Donald Peterson, the daddy of the Fox platform.

Why the endless permutations of the same platform? In the seventies, Ford desperately needed a new compact platform. But in those lean years, The Blue Oval Boys didn’t have the big bucks they needed to develop all-new front wheel-drive powertrains. So rear wheel-drive it was.

For pistonheads, Ford’s “loss” was a blessing in disguise. Overseen by Peterson, utilizing computer-aided design (CAD) for the first time, Ford’s development team created a light but strong and eminently flexible platform. The modified strut front suspension left room for V8s. The rack and pinion steering was precise. And the four-link rear axle was a big step up from the leaf-spring Falcon chassis the Fox replaced.

In 1978, the clones Fairmont and Zephyr came first (CC here): boxy but light, a bit boring but tossable, honest and ruggedly simple– an American Volvo 240. But it was the next year’s new Mustang that really established the Fox’s legendary genetic variability.

Ford developed the Fox platform for over twenty-five unbroken years, right through the 2004 model year Mustangs. The Fox ‘Stang and its mechanical kin offer today’s enthusiasts a cornucopia of junk-yard parts interchangeability and after-market performance parts availability. An entire industry has grown-up around them; they’ve completely overshadowed their spiritual predecessors, the tri-five Chevys.

Foxes are nothing less than a reincarnation of Fords from the classic flathead era, when swapping Model T frame rails to ’39 taillights– and everything in between– ushered in the hot-rod era.

DNA trumps all. I’ve had to accept that in addition to our Foxes, I share more than a few other traits with my father. But it was probably only because of the Fox’ extreme genetic versatility that we ever shared the same basic car.